In the wake of Jon Ossoff’s stinging defeat in the House race in Atlanta’s suburbs last night, the question now is: How do Democrats pick up the pieces?
There have been, and will continue to be, loud calls for the party to adopt the policy agenda espoused by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren: lurching leftward and toward a populist economic platform. Under this scenario, Democrats would embrace candidates who excoriate the wealthiest “1 percent” and promise to curb income inequality, zero out public college and university tuition and enact single-payer universal health care. The Sanders-Warren populist agenda would be trumpeted in House and local races across the country.
There are also Democratic warnings that Ossoff’s tepid handling of President Trump misfired. During the special election runoff against Republican Karen Handel, seeking to capture the hearts of GOP college-educated voters, Ossoff preached civility and avoided anti-Trump diatribes; he never quite mouthed the full-throated critique of Trump’s mendacity, ignorance, incivility and authoritarian predilections that some of Ossoff’s ardent supporters desired. His above-the-fray strategy will be heavily scrutinized in the wake of his four-point electoral loss. Hillary Clinton rested much of her campaign on a platform of anti-Trumpism, and Ossoff, on a far smaller playing field, took something of the opposite tack, refusing to make Trump’s temperament the bête noir of his message.
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Neither Clinton nor Ossoff prevailed, leaving the debate about the Democratic “message” and “agenda” flaring anew — namely, how do Democrats balance anti-Trump broadsides against a positive economic agenda that can appeal to some of Trump’s white working-class and upper-income voters? “Our brand is worse than Trump,” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, complained to the New York Times in the hours after the race in Georgia was called. “We can’t just run against Trump.”
Other Democrats are committed to a centrist, Ossoff-like strategy that positions the party as the modest, reality-based alternative to Republican extremism. In House districts where Republicans lead in voter registration and enjoy built-in advantages, these calls will be particularly pronounced over the next 18 months.
Although the Democratic Party has never faced a president like Trump, and while there are few recent instances in which an organic “resistance” has emerged as a potential boon to the party, this moment of Democratic despair and division is not without precedent. The party’s internecine warfare, progressive vs. centrist divisions, and a dark view that the Democratic brand is toxic to large chunks of more conservative parts of America have echoes in modern history.
After Vice President Hubert Humphrey narrowly lost to Richard Nixon in 1968, the party nominated Sen. George McGovern for president in 1972. Republicans eviscerated McGovern as an appeaser on foreign policy and a soft-on-crime left-wing radical. McGovern was trounced, winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
After Ronald Reagan soundly defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Democrats embarked on a decade-long internal debate about their post-Great Society identity. Traditional liberals battled conservative Southerners over economic policies and the size and purpose of the welfare state, while some “neoliberals” sought to forge a more centrist party that promoted the tech industry, free trade, fiscal restraint and deregulation, along with a defense of public morality and a strong military. This centrist movement to recapture the Democratic Party ultimately was a factor that helped Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton triumph in his 1992 presidential campaign.
In the aftermath of Clinton’s presidency, Al Gore lost a heartbreakingly close election in 2000, and Democrats again struggled — especially after 9/11 — to distinguish their ideas, candidates and policies from Republicans, who controlled majorities in Congress and the White House. The debates that followed all these setbacks were necessary and proper, part of the natural process that a party as racially and economically diverse as the Democratic Party must embrace as it seeks to win majorities in Congress and check Republicans in the White House. The times when the party has lurched leftward (McGovern is the most notable example), and the times when it has sought to reincarnate and distance itself from its recent achievements (Gore running away from Clinton’s record in 2000, for example) have not, on the whole, proven to be successful formulas.
Whatever transpires in the months ahead, it’s worth remembering that the calls for fundamental party reform are reflections of more entrenched challenges on where the party stands on big issues of race and class. These debates — such as are Democrats primarily the party of the rising, cosmopolitan America or the party championing the economic interests of the white working class? — will rage on. At the same time, politics can change in a blink, and with Trump’s volatility, myriad investigations and potential court cases unfolding over the next 18 months, and the near-miss special election results in a series of deep-red districts, the 2018 midterms may turn out to be more favorable to Democrats than they think at this funereal moment; after all, in June 2005, few pundits knew a Democratic wave was coming in 2006.
The debate that’s now fully engaged — more so even than after Hillary Clinton’s defeat — has been a healthy feature of the Democratic Party’s DNA since the Great Society era. It has kept the party relevant, engaged and forward-looking, even if the party looks adrift and captain-less in the confused aftermath of a bitter defeat.
Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.
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